Printed photographs and pictures may be one of the most painful things to hold on to for the survivors of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in March 2011. Maybe that is why over 200,000 photographs that were recovered from the devastated areas still remain unclaimed by their owners. Survivors have barely been able to put their lives together, even though it has been over 2 years now. As the photos have slowly been deteriorating, a team of volunteers have been trying to preserving them in a photo storage center, either by cleaning them or turning them to digital form.
Yutaro Hashimoto, a 65-year-old fisherman, was overjoyed when he found a photo of his grandchild in one of these storage areas. “I never dreamed that I would ever see this again. I’ll take good care of it,” he said, holding the photo in his hand. After the disaster, Japan’s Self Defense Forces delivered around 100,000 photos recovered from the debris to storage centers. A volunteer team of four have been cleaning the images and restoring them with ink brushes and other tools. According to them, they have digitized around 95,000 recovered photos. Of those, only 28,000 photos have been returned to their owners.
Even after two years, the survivors seemingly cannot bear to think of memory-triggering items such as photos. According to the staff, they storage center only receives around 2 to 3 visitors per day. One of the staffers said: “More than two years after the disaster, there are still many people who can’t think about things like photos yet. There are also people who can’t make it to our center because they are elderly or they live elsewhere.” To help with this situation, the staff of the storage center has gone online, launching a website so people can search for their photos.
As traditional photos do deteriorate over time, especially when exposed to a corrupting agent such as saltwater, Tokyo-based Fujifilm Corp. has been helping with the photo preservation effort in disaster-hit areas. They have provided printing equipment that makes use of a coating of industrial-strength gelatin to prevent deterioration. A huge number of these photos have been subjected to saltwater due to the destructive tsunami that followed the 2011 earthquake. The volunteers are still hopeful that these photos will reach their owners soon. Kaori Nose, head of another photo storage center, said, “Many disaster victims are still struggling to rebuild their daily lives. Sometime in the future, when it’s the right time for them to recall old memories, people will want the photos back. Because of that, we plan to continue our activities.”